Curation Obscures Art in the MCA’s I Am You

In honor of their 50th anniversary, alongside To the Racy Brink, the Museum of Contemporary Art is staging We Are Here, an exhibition program consisting of three semi-concurrent exhibits drawing on the institution’s wide-ranging permanent collection of 20th and 21st century work. Typically, exhibitions of this nature adhere to fairly regular formats; the overall tone tends to be one of respect and reverence, with gratitude being shown towards the artists, patrons, and curators who have built the museum into the institution it presently is. The focus tends, for obvious reasons, to be the work itself. Typically. Not always.

Four individual works installed in the style of an assemblage

The first exhibition in the program to open, I Am You, recently went on view in the museum’s second floor north gallery, and looks to “underscore how each of our unique social and natural landscapes shape a diverse cultural environment,” according to the associated collateral. The rhetorical nature of this statement belies the actions taken within the galleries.

Curated by José Esparza Chong Cuy—a relative newcomer to the MCA, joining the museum’s staff as a curatorial associate in April 2016—I Am You is a survey of outstanding works which, unfortunately, suffers from its utterly strange presentation.

Some works are obscured altogether by others.

The exhibition design consists primarily of low-slung false walls which vacillate in color from baby blue to pitch black in a most jarring manner. The lighting, which is uncommonly, but universally low throughout the galleries is at times ambient, but for the most part is merely an obstacle to ideal viewing. This condition is not aided by the stanchions used in the show, these being of the heavily-installed steel beam variety. While this reporter is sympathetic to the matter—having, in full disclosure, been employed for a time several years ago as a gallery officer at the MCA—that these are an effective means of keeping the public at bay, and often an artifact of exacting insurance agreements, there are undoubtedly more elegant solutions, and certainly solutions in greater service to the work. In the case of Olafur Eliasson’s Convex/Concave, a vital element of the piece is irritatingly obscured. The stanchions, when used to protect more than one work at a time, also bear the untenable side effect of overly defining spaces, creating room-like sub-galleries within the gallery, to no real end. 

This, however, aligns with at least part of the curatorial vision, as Cuy has chosen to arrange certain selections of work in close groupings, forcing individual works by multiple artists to viewed as de facto assemblages. Though the proximity of works to one another within an exhibition is certainly well within the curator’s purview, there is a significant difference between employing proximity as a means of suggestion and employing proximity as a manipulation of aesthetic and conceptual value, as Cuy does. 

It does strike one that Cuy goes out of his way to exert this kind of control, evinced once again by the sporadic intervention of curatorial notes on the exhibition labels. Roughly one third (a curious number, given it’s usually an all-or-nothing matter) of the exhibition’s works bear explanatory texts authored by Cuy which take on a unnecessarily didactic and, at times, condescending tone, such as when he chooses to expound on the manifestations of Homer’s Odyssey when discussing H.C. Westerman’s Memorial to the Idea of Man If He Was an Idea, going so far as to make the claim that “the artist is asking us to identify with Polyphemus instead of Odysseus.” Works by Francis Bacon and Marwan among others, receive similar treatment, with decontextualized conjecture represented as immutable fact.

Luisa Lambri’s Untitled (Barragan House, #08A) hung near the ceiling

Then there is the matter of the installation methods employed. The tiresome new trend of hanging works so high on the wall that they cannot be viewed properly, and are likely missed altogether by some viewers, is again trotted out. 

More perplexing, however, is the tactic used to exhibit paintings at a remove from the walls. This is done by instead mounting them on vertical poles anchored at the floor, often with the works displayed at a roughly 50° angle to the viewer. While this may be a valid—even clever—solution to exhibiting works in certain alternative spaces (a modernist space with a glass curtain wall system or a historic space with prohibitive preservation standards, for instance) to utilize it in a proper gallery setting seems at best arbitrary, and at worst a deviation from obvious standards for the sake of being deviant. 

This series of decisions—the peculiar exhibition design, the faux-assemblages, the alternative installation methods—when taken in as a single vista, begins to resemble something more closely associated with a department store window display than anything fit for a museum. 

Not only does this curatorial model place works where they actively obscure one another from view, it deprives pieces of a more delicate nature—take Doris Salcedo’s ghostly Disremembered III—of the breathing room they ask for, dismissing the gravity of the parts in favor of the spectacle of the whole.

If the level of intention in these actions is somehow still in question, one need look no further than the gallery’s south wall, painted half white, and half light blue. On the wall hangs Arturo Herrera’s Behind the House III, an installation of red wool felt panels (which, according to another of Cuy’s curatorial notes contains forms “abstracted from popular culture and children’s literature”). Installed directly in front of Herrera’s work is David Hammons Praying to Safety, an installation consisting of two bronze statues from Thailand, string, and a single safety pin (on which Cuy has nothing to add). Striking though this arrangement may be, it corrupts the monumentality of Herrera’s work and the austerity of Hammons’, to say nothing of the way it sets their respective conceptual interpretations haywire.

The curator’s work, when done correctly, is a subtle enhancement to the work of the artist. When it is done inadequately, it is a distraction. When the latter occurs, and the intervention of the curator overshadows the works on view, an exhibition has failed. Often this is a problem that can be distilled down to a matter of ego. 

And while the MCA did profess a desire to “overturn the traditional model of the anniversary exhibition” with the We Are Here program, one hardly imagines that this is the means of doing so the curatorial department had in mind.

Nevertheless, no degree of poor curation can diminish the pleasure of seeing many of the works on view. A good number of them are known to regular attendees of the museum, having been included in other exhibitions over the last decade, and there is an unexpected joy in their familiarity. The works less frequently exhibited each bring about a small thrill; seeing Jasper Johns’ In Memory of My Feelings–Frank O’Hara alongside (or, to be technically correct, diametrically adjacent to) a wall-sized vinyl installation of the text of O’Hara’s poem bearing the same title is an incomparable experience, among others. On that basis, this exhibition is well worth seeing.

I have mentioned before that in its commitment to always looking forward, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago appears to have failed to cultivate its ability to look at the past, but as I Am You shows, perhaps the failure has been in cultivating a respect for the past.

Jasper Johns’ In Memory of My Feelings—Frank O’Hara

There is still a chance that We Are Here will pay proper homage the MCA’s history, despite the shortcomings of I Am You. The second installment, You Are Here, an exhibition examining the progression of the role of the art viewer from passive to active, is set to be curated by Naomi Beckwith, whose work on past exhibitions like Jimmy Roberts: Vis-A-Vis and Homebodies has proven her talent. The final installment, curated by Omar Kholeif, We Are Everywhere, is a look at “artists who borrow from popular culture”—a failsafe topic if there ever was one. The public will find out when both go on view on the museum’s fourth floor October 21st.

I Am You is on view thru April 1, 2018. You Are Here and We Are Everywhere will be on view October 21 thru January 31, 2018, at the MCA, 220 E. Chicago Ave. The museum is open Tuesday 10am-9pm, Wednesday-Thursday 10am-5pm, Friday 10am-9pm, and Saturday-Sunday 10am-6pm. Admission is $15 for adults, $8 for students/teachers/seniors, and free for anyone under the of 18 as well as MCA members.

Bianca Bova
Bianca Bova

Bianca Bova is a Chicago-based curator. She has worked with national and international contemporary arts organizations including Gunder Exhibitions, SiTE:LAB, the Chicago Architecture Foundation, The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and EXPO Chicago.